For years, Harvard University has essentially been without a visible mascot.
Athletes at the Cambridge institution refer to themselves as “The Crimson” — which is a color, and not exactly an anthropomorphized character that they can rally behind at sporting events and school gatherings.
Outside of athletics, the college is technically represented by “John Harvard the Pilgrim,” but undergraduates say the historical figure has fallen out of favor and hasn’t been seen in the flesh — or felt costume — for some time.
While other Division 1 schools have had the chance to cheer along with creatures both real and imaginary, whether it’s a costumed version of an animal, or a devil, pirate, or leprechaun, Harvard has mostly been left standing on the sidelines.
So a group of students fed up with missing out on the action, and who think the often stuffy campus could use a basting of school spirit, are taking matters into their own hands. They say it’s time for Harvard to embrace a mascot that will be right at home on their Cambridge campus, one that in a way has become synonymous with the neighborhood surrounding the school.
That mascot is a turkey.
“With the Crimson branding, you don’t have the opportunity for students to see a physical mascot cheering them on and leading chants and things like that,” said Travis Allen Johnson, co-president of the Harvard Undergraduate Association, which on Sunday allocated $1,000 for a turkey mascot pilot program.
But a homage to the “small but mighty” bird would change everything, he said.
On Saturday, the group plans to dispatch two students in human-size turkey suits to strut around at the tailgate party outside of Harvard Stadium, ahead of “The Game” between Harvard and Yale. The aim is to have them drum up support for the idea, and get classmates on board.
The turkey initiative has not been endorsed by the college’s athletics department, but the students hope an outpouring of support from their peers during the college’s biggest sporting event of the year could help make the case to administrators that a turkey mascot would get more people pumped up and flocking to games.
“Oftentimes we see a lot of students come out to the Harvard-Yale game, but attendance isn’t what it can be, or should be, at other events,” Johnson said. “So we hope that if students know that there will be a fun mascot you can engage with, and take pictures with at the games, it’ll help inspire greater turnout at those events, too.”
The idea to make a turkey Harvard’s mascot has been kicked around on campus for years. A petition in favor of it circulated in 2016, after the campus and surrounding businesses were enraptured by a bold bird — affectionately dubbed “the Harvard Turkey”— that took over the neighborhood.
It picked up again this year, after Harvard student Felix Bulwa published research showing that school spirit was pitifully low and surveyed his peers about an animal representative that could potentially help. In his research, Bulwa gave students two options: a turkey, or a lobster? The latter got just 14 percent of the vote. But the turkey, which 36 percent of respondents favored, was the clear winner.
And why not?
The student leaders said it makes perfect sense that undergraduates would feel a sense of fondness for the ground-feeding fowl. They’re accustomed to seeing plenty of them wander across Harvard Yard and have come to respect their fighting spirit (even if they sometimes peck at cars and chase people off).
“No student on campus who has come face-to-face with a turkey in the Yard would say that turkeys are unintimidating,” said Lylena D. Estabine, co-president of the student group. “We very much make way for the turkeys.”
They haven’t settled on a name for the large crimson-hued bird that they hope becomes Harvard’s next symbol. They plan to ask undergrads at the game for their ideas.
Down the line, they said they would be open to following in the footsteps of their rivals at Yale, who have been represented by a real-life bulldog named “Handsome Dan.”
“Maybe one day we’ll be able to bring a real turkey to the games,” Johnson said.
But if the concept fails to fake flight, well, no harm, no … fowl.
“If students don’t like it, or have better suggestions, then it’s back to the drawing board,” Estabine said, “Really, we just want to get students engaged with this process and get them to care. Sometimes the best way to get people to have an opinion is to put a choice in front of them. So that’s what we’re hoping this weekend.”